Is email dead? “Not even close!”
In 1971, Ray Tomlinson, an engineer at a computer company in Cambridge, Massachusetts, made technological history. The intention was simple yet audacious — to create a method for two computers to share a message.
In what was surely a highly considered decision, Tomlinson sent the letters ‘QWERTYUIOP’ across a network. In doing so, he would ignite the spark of a communication revolution called email.
As we fast forward to the present, emails have become the backbone of global communication. The exhibition ‘E-mail is Dead‘ at the Design Museum in London takes visitors on a nostalgic journey through the past 50 years of email.
The exhibition showcases a timeline of powerful stories, from the birth of email to its current widespread use, each one highlighting the enduring relevance of this form of communication.
Is email dead?
With 4.3 billion global users and over 347 billion emails sent and received every day, the notion that email might be dead is perhaps hyperbolic. But with the rise of instant messaging and more convenient forms of communication now available, is it fair to say email is dying?
Not according to Michelle Taite, CMO of Intuit Mailchimp, who collaborated with the Design Museum to deliver the exhibition. Taite says email usage has increased 4% year on year. She argues that, unlike the fleeting nature of texts, email allows for thoughtful communication that leads to personalised experiences.
“We often think about it as an either/or, versus an and,” says Taite. “People are using it in a more considered way. Email allows you to get a message, think about it, consider your response, or maybe keep it in your draft folder for a little bit. Really think about the message that you want to send.”
The exhibition is divided into three parts: the origins of email, its commercial impact, and a glimpse into its future.
The first part led us through a timeline of email, including notable events like Queen Elizabeth II’s first email, and when a schoolgirl was accidentally added to the Pentagon’s mailing list — for four years.
It continues to a section that highlights the impact of email on people’s lives. It showcases a moving collection of personal stories, including heart-warming reunions with birth parents and the strategic beginnings of well-known brands such as Air B’n’B.
We’re all familiar with the dread and disappointment that you feel when you get rejected for a job, or the excitement when you receive an offer letter. I remember the anxiety I had in college on results day, waiting for an email to see if I had been accepted into university or not.
There’s no denying that email has been there through our high and lows, like an old friend. But have we grown apart?
Whilst you’re considering that, the exhibition offers a fun distraction: a personality test to determine your email style.
The questions provoked reflection upon how email habits have changed over time. Does the prevalence of instant messaging affect the way we utilise email now? Has email adapted to cater to younger generations’ preference for faster communication?
I often find myself asking if it’s necessary to include formalities like ‘sincerely’ and ‘best regards’ in every email. A simple ‘Thanks’ should suffice in today’s digital age, surely.
The test even asked how I would express laughter in an email. I was torn between ‘haha’ and ‘lol’ — in the end, I opted for ‘haha’, which highlighted the subtler distinctions between the two platforms. But these nuances could be an indication of generational differences.
Taite says, “It’s hard to just broadly speak about a whole generation. But people use e-mails in a different way. The older generation took it as a literal letter. So, you see the politeness of it, the structure, but also the length. It also depends on personality; some people love writing.”
Taite insists that younger generations are not moving away from email altogether, but rather prefer brevity, directness, and personalisation in their emails.
“We’re seeing them use email just as frequently. Because it’s a more controlled vehicle of communication,” she said. “The more personalised it is with brands, the more usage we’re seeing. It’s about what their relationships with brands are, and how they want to be communicated with.”
She suggests that sending mail that corresponds with their buying patterns, hobbies, and online habits is the most effective way of reaching them.
“This meeting could have been an email”
In any case, young people still have jobs, and email remains the most prevalent form of communication in the workplace. It’s safe to say that email’s importance in today’s professional world can’t be overstated.
Email is an essential tool that provides a digital record of communications, ensuring transparency in business operations. Each exchange can serve as evidence in professional situations. We can all relate to being asked “Do you have email confirmation?” in some form.
In contrast, conversations on instant messaging platforms can be edited or deleted, leading to inconsistencies or misunderstandings. This supports Taite’s statement that email is a more deliberate form of communication. I remember a previous employer insisted that we didn’t communicate via WhatsApp groups as messages could be misinterpreted, and the business had no way to monitor them.
Furthermore, the rise of instant communication platforms has made us too accessible outside of office hours. This constant communication pressures employees to always be available and responsive, which can lead to burnout and encroach on personal time.
Whereas emails still maintain a respectful distance between professional and personal life — unless you’re checking them over dinner…
Where does it all go?
One aspect of digital communication that’s often overlooked is its environmental impact. My inbox has thousands of unread emails, including junk mail, ads, old subscriptions, and the odd phishing scam. But where is all this data stored, and what is the cost of preserving these digital records?
“What many don’t realize,” Taite explained, “is that even though email is more environmentally friendly than physical mail and requires less physical space, it does have a digital footprint.”
Though not massive, this footprint contributes to our individual carbon emissions. According to Taite, “The average consumer’s email usage equates roughly to driving a small petrol car for about 200km per year.”
This raises an important point about the unseen implications of our online habits. Even as we shift away from activities that we know cause environmental harm; we need to be aware of the less obvious impacts of the digital alternatives.
Taite claims that Intuit has been carbon neutral since 2015. “We take sustainability very seriously and have implemented various measures to minimize our environmental impact.”
There are steps we can take as consumers too. “Being thoughtful about how we use email can make a difference,” Taite suggests. “That means keeping our inboxes manageable — around 1000 emails maximum; avoiding unnecessary ‘reply-all’ emails; and being conscious about what we send and why”, says Taite.
AI for good?
Interestingly, Taite mentioned the role of technology in making email more sustainable. “Artificial Intelligence can be used to drive efficiency and personalisation, reducing the need for unnecessary emails,” she explained. “Therefore, it can play a key part in shrinking our digital footprint.”
“We’re working on a lot of AI and ML tools that will revolutionise email as we know it.” In the coming decade, we can expect much greater personalisation in our emails, thanks to advanced data processing.
“At Mailchimp, we’re using real-time behavioural data to trigger automated emails to customers based on their recent activities. This way, brands can provide value whenever it’s needed,” says Taite.
The integration of AI technology in email marketing doesn’t mean that the human will be replaced. Instead, it allows us to shift our focus towards the “why” and “what” of communication, while AI handles the “how”.
“We currently have 15-20 AI models in use and are launching an auto-content-generator in the UK very soon,” says Taite. These AI tools are designed to analyse data and create specific email segments. In turn, helping marketers make informed decisions in a timely and efficient manner.
This vision implies that email won’t become obsolete, but instead, will experience a transformation with the help of AI and machine learning. It will become a more personalised, responsive, and dynamic tool, bringing significant changes to the way businesses communicate with their customers.
This aligns with Mailchimp’s announcement of a strategic alliance with web developer Wix, and the launch of enhanced generative AI features, which were announced this week.
Aimed at improving targeting, personalisation, and automation for UK marketers, it offers advanced segmentation, automations, and email build and text generation tools.
The future of email
The exhibition culminates in a soothing ‘cloud room’ — a serene space with mirrored ceilings and plush white sofas, designed for reflection. Here, surrounded by a portrayal of the digital cloud, you’re encouraged to consider: With what we know today, what does the future hold for email?
The answer, given through tongue-in-cheek concept art and mock-up prototypes of potential future inventions, challenges the notion that email is a waning platform. Instead, the exhibition presents the idea that email may yet again reinvent itself in our ever-evolving digital communication landscape.
Taite addressed the heart of this quandary, explaining, “We’re seeing so many forms of communication that it’s sometimes hard to keep up with, like what should I communicate where? And if I’m using text all the time, or WhatsApp, to communicate as frequently with friends, am I really using other forms as effectively?”
‘E-mail is Dead‘ leads its audience through the past, present, and future of email, proving its pervasive and enduring relevance despite the flood of contemporary communication platforms.
I kept my final question simple and concise, which Taite reciprocated: Is email dead?
“4 billion users, 300 billion emails a day, four out of five customers say they’d rather be communicated to via email. Not even close.”
The ‘Email is Dead’ exhibit is free to view at the London Design Museum until 22nd October.
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